Harviths Give Talk on Gabriel Over the White House at FDR Presidential Library

Issue Date: 
April 26, 2009
Walter Huston portrait by Clarence Sinclair BullWalter Huston portrait by Clarence Sinclair Bull

Pitt Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for University News and Magazines John Harvith and Susan Edwards Harvith, a film history faculty member in Syracuse, N.Y., gave a lecture March 29 in conjunction with a screening of the 1933 MGM film Gabriel Over the White House in the Henry A. Wallace Center at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y. The lecture and film presentation were in conjunction with the FDR Library’s special exhibition Action, and Action Now: FDR’s First 100 Days.

The feature film, starring Walter Huston, was made in the final depth-of-the Depression days of the Hoover Administration through William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan production company. It was based on the American publication of the uncredited novel Gabriel Over the White House, which tells the story of a machine politician elected U.S. President who undergoes a miraculous transformation, becoming an enlightened dictator who solves the Depression’s unemployment problem, rids the nation of gangsters, and ends the rearmament of foreign nations. The film, which came out shortly after FDR’s inauguration, was one of the six top film hits of spring 1933 and was reportedly a favorite of the new President.

In their lecture, the Harviths placed Gabriel within the political and filmmaking context of its time, speaking about Hearst’s role in Roosevelt’s political career in 1932-33 and explaining censorship issues raised by the film and the internal controversy the film’s production caused within MGM when studio chief and staunch Republican and Hoover supporter Louis B. Mayer first saw the completed film.

The Harviths are mass communications and arts historians who have worked together since 1971 in producing exhibitions and film series, writing books and articles, teaching, and doing oral histories of cultural and arts figures. They have coauthored, among other publications, the books Karl Struss: Man With a Camera, which documented their national touring rediscovery exhibition of the early art photography of the legendary Hollywood cinematographer, and Edison, Musicians, and the Phonograph, the first oral history of the phonograph that grew out of Susan’s master’s thesis, including interviews with 46 recording figures, from Thomas Edison’s youngest son to Benny Goodman, Andre Previn, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. They also have done taped interviews with more than 50 legendary film figures, as well as interviews with dozens of early television pioneers that form the core of a television oral history archive at Syracuse University.